In ADWD, the drama of Dany’s arc is in her struggle with herself. In her final chapters, that struggle is resolved.
Earlier in the book, motivated by fear of her own violent side and what it could mean for innocent life, Dany devoted herself to making peace in Meereen. She told herself, again and again, that she had to do this, for her people. She was willing to subsume all other parts of her personality, and all of her other desires, to achieve this peace. She knew that when she unleashed her violent side in the past, the end result was only devastation. The horrors of Astapor and Hazzea weighed heavily on her mind. So, difficultly and amazingly, she achieved that peace for Meereen.
And once she does, she becomes utterly miserable, and concludes it was a failure and a mistake.
Peace and War in ASOIAF
Before we get into Dany’s rejection of the peace, let’s put it in context with the series. Martin has said part of his project is to always portray both sides of war — the glorious stirrings one may feel in the moment, and the bloody and awful aftermath. He doesn’t want us ever to forget that though it might feel good to go to war, the consequences of throwing the country into chaos are slaughtered and raped innocents, broken men, feasts for crows, war making “monsters of us all.”
Now, Martin is not a total pacifist. He’s said he would’ve fought in World War II, and he seems to think war is perfectly justifiable for self-defense, or to confront a truly great evil. But from the amount of time he spends lingering on war’s awful consequences, it’s pretty clear that he thinks a whole ton of wars that sound good in theory are actually horrific in practice. Again and again, he has urged the reader to bask in awesome feel-good moments of warmongering, such as Robb’s “King in the North” crowning, Dany’s “Dracarys” in Astapor, and Doran’s “Fire and Blood” speech to Arianne… only to completely undercut those moments later, showing how those decisions were actually disastrous mistakes with horrific results. It is always the innocents who suffer most, when the high lords play their game of thrones.
After dwelling on war and its consequences in the first four books, Martin turns his attention to peacemaking in ADWD. Now, peace is often idealized as a happy sunshine-y state where all is well and everyone holds hands. Martin clearly has a more realistic view — he thinks peace is incredibly difficult to achieve, often unsatisfying, never guaranteed to last, and requires much effort to maintain. There will always be plots, and people who see war as in their interest. And, crucially, peace often involves letting many injustices continue, rather than trying to right all the world’s wrongs. With peace, you never get everything you want.
This is why war is such a seductive option. In comparison to peace, war is simple. War clarifies things. War means you can try to take what you want through force of arms, rather than giving up some things you want. War can be well-meaning. And not all wars are started by wicked people. Indeed, much of ADWD is about how and why “good,” sympathetic characters can willingly choose to discard peace in favor of war.
Despite the shortcomings of peace, Martin views it as incredibly worthwhile and valuable — considering the consequences of war he’s outlined, how could he not? Indeed, I would go so far as to speculate that he agrees with the Green Grace in Barristan’s final chapter. As she desperately begs Barristan to restore the peace by freeing Hizdahr, she tells him that the decision to discard peace is a tragedy, because:
“In return he gave her peace. Do not cast it away, ser, I beg you. Peace is the pearl beyond price.” (ADWD BARRISTAN IV)
Yet Dany comes to believe the price of peace is too high.
Why Dany becomes dissatisfied with peace
Dany knows the consequences of war, and has been tormented about them since Book 1:
When the battle was done, Dany rode her silver through the fields of the dead… Across the road, a girl no older than Dany was sobbing in a high thin voice as a rider shoved her over a pile of corpses, facedown, and thrust himself inside her. Other riders dismounted to take their turns. That was the sort of deliverance the Dothraki brought the Lamb Men… Slaves, Dany thought. Khal Drogo would drive them downriver to one of the towns on Slaver’s Bay. She wanted to cry, but she told herself that she must be strong. This is war, this is what it looks like, this is the price of the Iron Throne. (AGOT DANY VII)
As I mentioned, this internal conflict is restarted in earnest at the end of ASOS, with the fate of Astapor, and continuing into ADWD, with the death of Hazzea. But as the book proceeds, Dany starts to reckon with the price of peace as well. A part of Dany has always yearned for peace and simplicity in a generic, idealized sense — this is symbolized by the “house with the red door” of her happiest childhood years:
“What are you looking at?” “My city,” said Dany. “I was looking for a house with a red door, but by night all the doors are black.” (ASOS DANY VI)
…“Is it Daario? What’s happened?” In her dream they had been man and wife, simple folk who lived a simple life in a tall stone house with a red door. (ADWD DANY II)
…She would rather have drifted in the fragrant pool all day, eating iced fruit off silver trays and dreaming of a house with a red door, but a queen belongs to her people, not to herself. (ADWD DANY IX)
But life is not a song, and “happily ever after” only happens in stories. Peace in the real world is not so idyllic.
Does it matter that Hizdahr’s kisses do not please me? Peace will please me. (DANY VII)
I hate this, thought Daenerys Targaryen. How did this happen, that I am drinking and smiling with men I’d sooner flay? … This is peace, she told herself. This is what I wanted, what I worked for, this is why I married Hizdahr. So why does it taste so much like defeat? (DANY VIII)
In her two post-peace chapters in Meereen, Dany is a cauldron of anger and misery. In theory, Dany was willing to compromise on her values, share power, and tolerate some injustices in the world without violently trying to fix them — all to protect innocent life in Meereen. In practice, it all ends up feeling intolerable for her.
Dany comes to despise the peace for several intertwined reasons. For one, the above quote shows she doesn’t like feeling that her enemies have defeated her, when she’d rather kill them. This is also emphasized after she speaks to the treacherous Brown Ben Plumm, feels defeated, and then schemes to have him killed:
“Is there some man in the Second Sons who might be persuaded to… remove … Brown Ben?” (DANY VIII)
Another is that she hates feeling powerless and not in control:
The street ahead had finally cleared. “Shall we continue on?” What could she do but nod? One step, then the next, but where is it I’m going? (DANY IX)
She begins to feel mistrustful and paranoid, seeing potential insults and treacheries everywhere:
The tumblers who came next failed to move her either, even when they formed a human pyramid nine levels high, with a naked little girl on top. Is that meant to represent my pyramid? the queen wondered. Is the girl on top meant to be me?
“…If Hizdahr’s peace should break, I want to be ready. I do not trust the slavers.” I do not trust my husband. “They will turn on us at the first sign of weakness.” (DANY IX)
And she finds that she loathes allowing injustice to continue, when peace necessarily involves letting injustices continue. Some of these are specific conditions of the peace she agreed to, that she now regrets:
“They have opened a slave market within sight of my walls!”
“Outside our walls, sweet queen. That was a condition of the peace, that Yunkai would be free to trade in slaves as before, unmolested.”
…Yunkai will trade in slaves, Meereen will not, this is what we have agreed. Endure this for a little while longer, and it shall pass.”
…All of the entertainers were slaves. That had been part of the peace, that slaveowners be allowed the right to bring their chattels into Meereen without fear of having them freed. In return the Yunkai’i had promised to respect the rights and liberties of the former slaves that Dany had freed. A fair bargain, Hizdahr said, but the taste it left in the queen’s mouth was foul. She drank another cup of wine to wash it out. (ADWD DANY VIII)
Sometimes, she perceives injustice, when it’s actually an incremental improvement she just has trouble accepting as a victory:
“Those bearers were slaves before I came. I made them free. Yet that palanquin is no lighter.”
“True,” said Hizdahr, “but those men are paid to bear its weight now. Before you came, that man who fell would have an overseer standing over him, stripping the skin off his back with a whip. Instead he is being given aid.”
It was true. A Brazen Beast in a boar mask had offered the litter bearer a skin of water. “I suppose I must be thankful for small victories,” the queen said.
“One step, then the next, and soon we shall be running. Together we shall make a new Meereen.” (ADWD DANY IX)
…“Six-and-ten,” Hizdahr insisted. “A man grown, who freely chose to risk his life for gold and glory. No children die today in Daznak’s, as my gentle queen in her wisdom has decreed.”
Another small victory. Perhaps I cannot make my people good, she told herself, but I should at least try to make them a little less bad. (ADWD DANY IX)
Sometimes, she is correct that she perceives an unjust violation of what she’s agreed to — but she can resolve it through negotiation and the political process. To truly build a new and stable Meereen, she will have to butt heads with the less savory desires of Hizdahr and the nobles, day in and day out, for years, peacefully. As she does below:
“You swore to me that the fighters would be grown men who had freely consented to risk their lives for gold and honor. These dwarfs did not consent to battle lions with wooden swords. You will stop it. Now.”
The king’s mouth tightened. For a heartbeat Dany thought she saw a flash of anger in those placid eyes. “As you command.” (ADWD DANY IX)
For all these reasons, Dany is very antsy and unhappy in these chapters — and responds by quickly flirting with breaking the peace in two ways. First, she starts scheming to win the loyalties of the Yunkish sellswords — she suggests having Brown Ben Plumm killed by his own men, and also recommends reaching out to their other three companies.
“Do it soon. If Hizdahr’s peace should break, I want to be ready. I do not trust the slavers.” I do not trust my husband. “They will turn on us at the first sign of weakness.”
“The Yunkai’i grow weaker as well. The bloody flux has taken hold amongst the Tolosi, it is said, and spread across the river to the third Ghiscari legion.” (DANY VIII)
Dany legitimately feels like she has to do this, because her foes will betray her. But I argued in Part II that the Harpy and Yunkai both intended to keep the peace. Dany is exaggerating her foes’ treachery and their strength (Barristan points out they’re being weakened by the pale mare).
Next, Dany decides to summon Quentyn and dangle her dragons in front of him. She appears to be trying to test Quentyn’s mettle, telling him her marriage “need not be the end of all your hopes.” Barristan rightly sees that little good can come of this:
“Bring him to me. It is time he met my children.” A flicker of doubt passed across the long, solemn face of Barristan Selmy. “As you command.” (DANY VIII)
But Dany manages to get through the night, eventually falling asleep “to dream queer, half-formed dreams of smoke and fire.”
The fighting pits
The fighting pits are a symbol of everything Dany hates about the peace, but there’s a good deal of ambiguity to how we as readers are supposed to feel about them. They are obviously based on the Roman gladiators and the Colosseum. Westerosi like Dany and Barristan perceive it as an obviously horrific practice, signifying the corruption of the Meereenese culture, but literally everyone in Meereen seems to want them reopened. With Dany’s reforms, the fighters should all be volunteers, or condemned murderers or rapers. The former slaves beg to be allowed to fight, to earn glory and money.
“I have heard your arguments so often I could plead your case myself. Shall I?” Dany leaned forward. “The fighting pits have been a part of Meereen since the city was founded. The combats are profoundly religious in nature, a blood sacrifice to the gods of Ghis. The mortal art of Ghis is not mere butchery but a display of courage, skill, and strength most pleasing to your gods. Victorious fighters are pampered and acclaimed, and the slain are honored and remembered. By reopening the pits I would show the people of Meereen that I respect their ways and customs. The pits are far-famed across the world. They draw trade to Meereen, and fill the city’s coffers with coin from the ends of the earth. All men share a taste for blood, a taste the pits help slake. In that way they make Meereen more tranquil. For criminals condemned to die upon the sands, the pits represent a judgment by battle, a last chance for a man to prove his innocence.” (DANY I)
…Dany grimaced. Even her own people would give no rest about the matter. Reznak mo Reznak stressed the coin to be made through taxes. The Green Grace said that reopening the pits would please the gods. The Shavepate felt it would win her support against the Sons of the Harpy. “Let them fight,” grunted Strong Belwas… “I train since three,” said Goghor the Giant. “I kill since six. Mother of Dragons says I am free. Why not free to fight?” (DANY II)
Yet Dany just cannot stand the things. And interestingly, she never actually tries to counter the arguments of Hizdahr or the pit fighters — she never really articulates why she hates them so. She just considers them obviously barbaric and therefore abhorrent. So it’s hard to say Dany is actually taking a moral stance here. She constantly thinks about how she’ll have blood on her hands if she reopens the pits. But instead of any truly terrible injustice, the pits seem to signify her inability to overcome her cultural disconnect with the Meereenese. Of course, a brutal war and an Astapor-like fate on Meereen would put much more blood on her hands than a mere bit of consensual fighting pit fun would, as Dany reflects here:
Barsena Blackhair was going to face a boar, his tusks against her dagger. Khrazz was fighting, as was the Spotted Cat. And in the day’s final pairing, Goghor the Giant would go against Belaquo Bonebreaker. One would be dead before the sun went down. No queen has clean hands, Dany told herself. She thought of Doreah, of Quaro, of Eroeh … of a little girl she had never met, whose name had been Hazzea. Better a few should die in the pit than thousands at the gates. This is the price of peace, I pay it willingly. If I look back, I am lost. (DANY VIII)
But, much like the peace itself, the pits prove impossible for Dany to stomach. As mentioned above, she correctly objects to the true injustice of Tyrion and Penny potentially being forced to fight lions, and rightly prevents it from happening. But she seems nearly as disturbed by the consensual fighting. After several matches, there is finally the gory death of the female fighter Barsena, who earlier chose quite willingly to embrace the possibility of her death, and petitioned Dany specifically for the right to fight:
“And the losers? What shall they receive?”
“Their names shall be graven on the Gates of Fate amongst the other valiant fallen,” declared Barsena. For eight years she had slain every other woman sent against her, it was said. “All men must die, and women too … but not all will be remembered.” (DANY II)
Daenerys would have prohibited contests between women as well, but Barsena Blackhair protested that she had as much right to risk her life as any man. (DANY IX)
It is interesting that Martin chose Barsena’s death as the last straw for Dany, rather than a moment of more straightforward injustice. For it is at that very moment that she decides to throw away her Meereenese tokar — a very important act symbolizing her rejection of Meereenese culture — and leave the pits.
The boar buried his snout in Barsena’s belly and began rooting out her entrails. The smell was more than the queen could stand. The heat, the flies, the shouts from the crowd … I cannot breathe. She lifted her veil and let it flutter away. She took her tokar off as well. The pearls rattled softly against one another as she unwound the silk.
“Khaleesi?” Irri asked. “What are you doing?”
“Taking off my floppy ears.” (DANY IX)
And just then — at the moment of Dany’s highest dissatisfaction with the both the peace and the Meereenese themselves — Drogon returns. Whether this timing is purely symbolic or whether it’s magical in some way, it’s surely not an accident on Martin’s part:
“Take me from this abbatoir, husband.” She could hear the boar snorting, the shouts of the spear-men, the crack of the pitmaster’s whip. “Sweet lady, no. Stay only a while longer. For the folly, and one last match. Close your eyes, no one will see. They will be watching Belaquo and Ghogor. This is no time for—” A shadow rippled across his face. (DANY IX)
Suddenly, and very cleverly, the cultural script is flipped. This whole time, Dany had felt superior to the Meereenese because of their love for the fighting pits, even complaining that “I cannot make my people good.” But now, as Drogon devours Barsena and the boar, the Meereenese are the ones horrified by the scene. And Dany’s sympathies completely reverse and she can only think of defending her dragon:
As he began to feed, he made no distinction between Barsena and the boar. “Oh, gods,” moaned Reznak, “he’s eating her!”
…“Kill it,” Hizdahr zo Loraq shouted to the other spearmen. “Kill the beast!” Ser Barristan held her tightly. “Look away, Your Grace.”
“Let me go!” Dany twisted from his grasp. The world seemed to slow as she cleared the parapet. When she landed in the pit she lost a sandal. (DANY IX)
And then she faces down Drogon, thinks that they are both “fire made flesh,” jumps on his back, and flies away from Meereen and her peace.
Reborn in the Dothraki Sea
Removed from the city, and left alone with her thoughts, her visions, and her dragon in the Dothraki Sea, Dany’s psychological transformation completes. She spends the first few pages trying to walk back to Meereen, telling herself she has to, that it’s her duty, for her people:
Her home was back in Meereen, with her husband and her lover. That was where she belonged, surely…
…On Drogon’s back she felt whole. Up in the sky the woes of this world could not touch her. How could she abandon that? It was time, though. A girl might spend her life at play, but she was a woman grown, a queen, a wife, a mother to thousands. Her children had need of her. (DANY X)
It’s important that, though the reader knows Meereen is now falling apart, Dany has no idea. As far as she knows, everything is still peaceful there:
By now the Yunkai’i will be marching home. That was why she had done all that she had done. For peace. (DANY X)
However, Drogon is keeping her away. He is again behaving symbolically, representing her dragon side keeping her away from the peace, until she is ready for war:
She would sooner have returned to Meereen on dragon’s wings, to be sure. But that was a desire Drogon did not seem to share. (DANY X)
Soon the visions start. All of the visions have the same purpose — to criticize what she did in Meereen, and tell her to be a dragon. First is Quaithe:
“Remember who you are, Daenerys,” the stars whispered in a woman’s voice. “The dragons know. Do you?” (DANY X)
Then Dany eats some bad berries and sees Viserys — surely a great role model for how to responsibly use a dragon — making the same point — that she has forgotten who she is, and what her words mean.
“Why did they give the dragon’s eggs to you? They should have been mine. If I’d had a dragon, I would have taught the world the meaning of our words.” (DANY X)
Now, the following exchange is crucial:
“I am the blood of the dragon,” she told the grass, aloud.
Once, the grass whispered back, until you chained your dragons in the dark.
“Drogon killed a little girl. Her name was … her name …” Dany could not recall the child’s name. That made her so sad that she would have cried if all her tears had not been burned away. “I will never have a little girl. I was the Mother of Dragons.”
Aye, the grass said, but you turned against your children. (DANY X)
This is a turning point for Dany. The book started with Dany finding out her dragon had killed the little girl Hazzea. The girl’s name haunted her throughout the book, so it’s immensely significant that her name has been forgotten now — in favor of the dragons. Dany’s vision seems to be saying that innocent little Meereenese girls aren’t your real children — the dragons are. The clear suggestion being that Dany needs to abandon or seriously reduce her concern for innocent life, in favor of using her own dragonpower to do what she wants.
Which leads us to the long sequence where Dany has her final realizations, concluding her arc in the book:
The stream will take me to the river, and the river will take me home.
Except it wouldn’t, not truly.
Meereen was not her home, and never would be. It was a city of strange men with strange gods and stranger hair, of slavers wrapped in fringed tokars, where grace was earned through whoring, butchery was art, and dog was a delicacy. Meereen would always be the Harpy’s city, and Daenerys could not be a harpy.
Never, said the grass, in the gruff tones of Jorah Mormont. You were warned, Your Grace. Let this city be, I said. Your war is in Westeros, I told you. (DANY IX)
Here again, what finally pushes Dany to the breaking point is her distaste for Meereenese culture — not injustice per se. Simply leaving and going to Westeros — an option she had earlier rejected as immoral and awful — is now presented as the answer to her problems.
“I am alone and lost.”
Lost, because you lingered, in a place that you were never meant to be, murmured Ser Jorah…
…I gave you good counsel. Save your spears and swords for the Seven Kingdoms, I told you. Leave Meereen to the Meereenese and go west, I said. You would not listen.
“I had to take Meereen or see my children starve along the march.” Dany could still see the trail of corpses she had left behind her crossing the Red Waste. It was not a sight she wished to see again. “I had to take Meereen to feed my people.”
You took Meereen, he told her, yet still you lingered. “To be a queen.”
You are a queen, her bear said. In Westeros.
“It is such a long way,” she complained. “I was tired, Jorah. I was weary of war. I wanted to rest, to laugh, to plant trees and see them grow. I am only a young girl.” (DANY X)
Note Dany’s account of why she had stayed in Meereen. As mentioned in Part III, she was motivated to stay by both the fate of Astapor, and her fear of her own dragon nature and potential madness. Neither is mentioned here. Instead she now seems to view her decision to stay in Meereen as the whims of a young girl, rather than a responsible moral crusade.
No. You are the blood of the dragon. The whispering was growing fainter, as if Ser Jorah were falling farther behind. Dragons plant no trees. Remember that. Remember who you are, what you were made to be. Remember your words.
“Fire and Blood,” Daenerys told the swaying grass. (DANY X)
And there it is. A rejection of Meereen. A rejection of peace. A rejection of bending over backward to protect innocent life. A rejection of “planting trees.” And instead, an embrace of vague, violent rhetoric about who she is “made to be” — and her words, “fire and blood.”
Since the first book, Dany has been tormented by the innocent lives lost when she unleashes violence and war. Now, she has apparently resolved to stop letting all this bother her. Her new “fire and blood” approach just seems likely to lead to many more Astapors and thousands more Hazzeas. But in this chapter Dany seems prepared to write them off, as sad but necessary collateral damage of her embracing her true “dragon” self and who she was “made to be.” The dragons, and Dany’s own violent impulses, will no longer be chained. She has given into her greatest fear — herself.
This is not to say Dany will become some cackling, one-dimensional “evil” villain. She will surely continue to care about those she loves, use violence against some people who legitimately deserve it, and free some more slaves if she happens to come across them.
But now she wants to go to Westeros. And that’s particularly interesting because, so far in the series, Dany’s violent methods and ignoble tactics have often been palatable to the reader because they were used against brutal and murderous slavers, for seemingly noble ends. But there are no slaves to free in Westeros. It seems that Martin started off by giving Dany a seeming moral justification for her violence, that he always later planned to undercut. Now, Dany’s in it for herself — for her own power, for her own throne, and for becoming who she’s made to be, and woe to anyone who gets in her way.
This is the tragedy of Dany. She achieved peace. And then she decided war felt better to her.
Overall the purpose of the Meereen arc was to transform Dany into a much darker character.
With that in mind, so many of the most-criticized aspects of this plotline make a great deal more sense. Our characters are supposed to be confused and frustrated about Meereenese politics. They are supposed to hate the city and conclude that staying there is a waste of time. They are supposed to feel this generic distrust for everyone, and to fail to grasp that their peaces were actually quite successful. Dany is supposed to conclude — wrongly — that her behavior through most of the book was silly and foolish. And if you came away with those impressions too, it’s perfectly understandable.
But when you look past the unreliable narrator and POV-character bias, Martin’s aim becomes clear. The whole plotline is designed to maneuver Dany into a mental place where she’ll decide to sideline her concerns for innocent life, and take what she wants with fire and blood. Martin’s triumph is in handling this character development in such a natural and organic way. He gives Dany as much agency as he can — her hand is never truly forced by the Harpy or slavers. He presents her with incredibly difficult situations, places her core values into conflict, and makes her choose. Her choices first go one way — then another.
Now, the transformation is complete. The Dany we knew at the end of ASOS is gone. The one who reaches Westeros will be a very different person. The dragons are now unchained, and the gloves are off.
Teora gave a tiny nod, chin trembling. “They were dancing. In my dream. And everywhere the dragons danced the people died.” (TWOW ARIANNE I)